Between Scientific Naturalism and “an Antiquated Religion”

The other day I began reading Gowan Dawson and Bernie Lightman’s Victorian Scientific Naturalism: Community, Identity, Continuity (2014) only to be side-tracked by references to Frank M. Turner’s Between Science and Religion (1974). Indeed, the volume is dedicated to Turner. I had picked up Turner’s book some months back, made copies of the introduction and conclusion, and quickly paged through it. Over the weekend I decided to give Turner a closer look.

Turner focuses on six, nineteenth-century thinkers: Henry Sidgwick, Alfred Russel Wallace, Frederic Myers, George Romanes, Samuel Butler, and James Ward. These were men of alternatives. They lived between scientific naturalism and religious orthodoxy. Abandoning the Christian faith, they could not replace it with the new naturalism. Indeed, they recognized that the scientific naturalism of Huxley, Tyndall, Spencer, Clifford, and others smacked of religious sentimentalism, that it purported to be a new guide to life. Science, according to these men, were merely “mechanical aptitude.” Sidgwick et al. were not alone. These six figures, Turner contends, were part of a larger contingent protesting the “pretensions of science to dominate thought and culture.” But they could not simply return to orthodoxy either. Thus they rejected both naturalism and Christianity. As a result, they existed in some sort of intellectual limbo. Myers summarized the middle position: “There are still those who, while accepting to the full the methods and the results of Science, will not yet surrender the ancient hopes of our race,” the “ancient hope” being “a final reconcilement of spiritual needs with intellectual principles,” the “capacity to lead rational lives, a potential for transcendental knowledge, immortality, and a destiny that partook of a divine or transcendental purpose.”

Sidgwick et al. questioned the “integrity of the naturalistic interpretation of man and nature,” “challenged the philosophical foundations of scientific naturalism,” and “contended that the theories and methods of scientific naturalism failed to deal logically, rationally, or adequately with certain inevitable human questions.” In short, scientific naturalism failed to “fulfill the much-vaunted promise of its adherents to provide a complete guide to life.”

Scientific naturalism was the “cult of science that swept across Europe” during the second half of the nineteenth century. Huxley and company were rarely in complete agreement with one another. However, what bound them together was a conviction that “in the struggle of life with the facts of existence, Science is a bringer of aid; in the struggle of the soul with the mystery of existence, Science is a bringer of light.” Holding strongly to a triad of doctrines—atomic theory, the law of conservation of energy, and evolution—they maintained that science had revealed the “uniformity of nature.” This, of course, was a metaphysical doctrine, and many contemporaries criticized the scientific naturalists for presupposing it without the verification of the scientific method.

According to Turner, naturalistic writers established their position on an epistemology founded on the positivism of Auguste Comte and the empirical philosophy of John Stuart Mill. Yet both were problematic, forcing the scientific naturalist to oscillate between an idealism and naive realism. This resulted in the appeal to agnosticism. But Turner calls this agnosticism “self-serving.” That is, it wasn’t an “honest doubt,” but rather the deliberate negligence of ontological issues.

It is interesting how the scientific naturalists portrayed themselves to the public. Their public persona was often arrogant, overly-confident, metaphysically reductionistic. At the same time, in private letters and diaries, they revealed much doubt in their own ideas. Thus we may suggest that Huxley and company were the most Janus-faced thinkers of the century.

Criticism came, of course, from Christians; but the non-Christian voice, such as Sidgwick et al., was even more pointed and pervasive. And as Turner points out in his conclusion, “what each man had hated most about the Christian faith reappeared in secular guise within the context of scientific naturalism.” Scientific naturalism ultimately proved “incompatible with the life of the mind.” In summarizing their view, Turner says

“that they have outgrown the church as exemplified in Christianity, but who have not therefore been brought to deny the fact that a religious attitude to life is as essential to them as a belief in the authenticity of science. These people have experienced the soul as vividly as the body, the body as vividly as the soul. And the soul has manifested itself to them in ways not to be explained in terms either of traditional theology or of materialism.”

In short, Sidgwick et al. sought a synthesis between science and religion.

 

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